Saturday, February 14, 2009

BOOK REVIEW - David Foster Wallace - Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

Please forgive me, I do really admire David Foster Wallace, and at his best he is an extremely perceptive and witty writer. But, this collection of short stories, was, at times, tedious and self indulgent in the extreme. The dominant form of each story is either a monologue, or a Q & A dialogue, where you only read the answers, you've no idea who the other person is, nor what question it is they've asked. As an artifice, this effect of being in receipt of an edited, if not censored, conversation gives them an aura of frank, expurgated confessions, of secret files. These are forbidden thoughts, unable to be given public exposure. It says much, in this post-feminist era, about the self-censoring nature of contemporary masculine discourse. So many things can no longer be openly said, without the collective cohorts of contemporary condemnation decending upon you. As a consequence buried things are turning fetid and corrupted.

Of all the stories here, it is the 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men' that impress themselves upon you the most. They are such unflinching portrayals of all the messy emotional and psychological tangles men can get themselves into in their relationships with others. These felt like very real people and true to life portrayals, as a result they were often uncomfortable reading, not for the squeamish. One story,has a man who just goes on and on and on to his girlfriend, about how he wants to be honest with her, about how in his previous relationships he'd have bailed out by now, but its a testament of how much he cares for her, and how much he wants things to be different that he is owning up to this pattern. By the end of this endless self obsessed litany you can sense that any woman with an ounce of self-preservation, would have already run a mile.

Obsessiveness, seems to be a recurring theme in these stories, the level of narrative detail Foster Wallace uses, itself borders on obsessive compulsive too. The form and the content often mirror each other in this way, and it can be unnerving in its daring. The characters are so self absorbed, and totally blind to anyone else's needs but their own, or are simply creepy, in a sicko sort of way. For most of the book I stayed interested and alongside Foster Wallace, but by the last quarter I began wishing he'd stop being so damned artful and clever. The final stories I largely skipped through, out of petulance and imaginative impatience. Some of them seemed more like the sort of thing you'd do as an experiment in a writers workshop, but wouldn't by any stretch of the imagination envisage them as being interesting to read. Quite often they're written in an abbreviated code, like excerpts from a shorthand note, the sort of form you might use if you were writing a psychological profile, a medical assessment, or were a policeman. This often felt far too self-consciously contrived, and detrimentally affected my final feelings about this book. Though it undoubtedly has some superb pieces of writing in it, he spends far too much time self indulgently showing off, which is real shame.

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